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The things you don't hear

Weary and sore they came upon a small copse of Loblolly pines swaying high above a sea of softly undulating golden broomsedge just as the first light of dawn faded in from the east. 

For weeks, they’d slept during the balmy spring days and walked mostly by moonlight, never by road. At times they’d take to the train tracks, ducking into the underbrush when one of them would sense the coming of the iron horse. Other times they strode along soaring tree lines edging fallow fields, damp spongy soil radiating the last of the day’s heat to their bare feet, until they found some small, safe, out-of-the way place as dark and anonymous as their faces.

The war was over. Mostly. Isolated skirmishes continued across the South, but if Lee surrendering his sword at Appomattox back in April hadn’t stopped the whites from continuing to kill each other, it certainly wouldn’t stop them from killing the Blacks some still blamed for the war itself. 

Since leaving the plantation upon which they’d toiled for a lifetime, be that six or 66 years, the small band of travelers had only grown in size. Initially, it was but a handful — some from the house, some from the field, some young, some not. As they made their way north and east each night, through thickets and rhododendron, through thunder and frost, through Alabama and into Georgia, they occasionally stumbled onto similar groups of former slaves who’d sought out the same lonely places, for the same reasons. 

They didn’t know where they were heading, but they knew they couldn’t stay where they were and that was as true on this sleepy spring morning as it was the day they started walking out of Mississippi. Their ultimate destination was not a physical destination. An uncertain future as free people, they decided, was almost as terrifying as the bondage they’d left miles behind them but at least it was a future that could be theirs and could be free from the cruelty of slavery. 

Now, they counted 50 men, women and children among them, maybe more. It was getting harder and harder to keep their numbers known only to the moon, and it was getting harder and harder to keep them all fed, clothed and shod. Some of the feeblest of the group had already begun piling pine boughs and needles into small mounds where they’d bed down for the day, while the able-bodied kept watch in shifts, peering out over the grassy field, trying to divine whence trouble may come before dark and which way they’d head after. 

From deep within the camp came a voice, somnolent yet strong, and even though Robert knew it was Louella’s it still startled him from behind like the crack of a Springfield.

They all fished and hunted and trapped and foraged as much as they could, but they were always running short of food and supplies, and somebody was always sick. Many in the group had skills or trades they’d brought with them — butchers, tailors, chandlers — but there was no doctor and there was no money with which to pay one, so somebody would have to go into town and look for day work.

“Robert,” she said. “You know it has to be you.” 

 

KHL sun

 

The bright sunshine hit Robert’s light brown eyes in a way that made it hard for him to see as he slowly emerged from the woods near the camp, wiping the sweat from his chin with a rag.

He dropped the tattered red cloth, scampered across the road and into a dense patch of white oak that paralleled it all the way into town. 

A foot of dried leaves topped several inches of acorns, all crunching loudly underfoot, but Robert was still able to catch a sound with his ear that he knew was out of place. Stilled and listening intently, he realized it was a wagon and a horse, maybe two, coming down the road. Breathing hard, he took shelter behind a massive trunk and watched the farmers rumble past him over the stony, rutted path.

Hopping one by one on slippery river stones, he crossed a shining stream lined with the glistening green leaves of pungent spring ramps and took to a well-worn game trail that circled up a sharply sloping ruddy red knob. Robert saw a break in the trees up ahead and thought he might be nearing town. 

Instead, when he reached the top, a small, orderly collection of algae-dotted limestones presented themselves to him. In front of each, the ground formed a bowl-shaped depression, some with raggedy white trillium flowers drooping lazily across them. 

Taking a few delicate steps forward, he encountered a worn wooden sign that simply read, “Colored Cemetery.” 

Names were near impossible to read, even though Robert could. There were rumors about Robert’s preferential treatment on the plantation, and his education, and his father, and why his skin was lighter than most of the people in his band. That’s why Louella had called out to him by name in the camp. That’s why it had to be him. 

Robert squatted down over one of the graves and grasped sides of the tombstone like a sack of flour, running his thumbs through its eroded grooves in silence, over and over, trying to discern a 1 from a 7 and a 3 from an 8 from a 9 until he grew tired and propped himself up against the stone and fell fast asleep. 

With the sun directly over his head he woke feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but he shrugged it off to the turkey buzzards taking to the skies all around him. He stood up, continuing on his way, crossing the same creek again and following its course until he found saddled up to its far bank a churning, whirling grist mill. 

There, on the outskirts of town, Robert watched as white farmers came and went in wagons, sometimes with Black laborers. 

He knew better than to take their presence as an invitation and remained concealed at a safe distance on the opposite bank — looking for the things you don’t see, listening for the things you don’t hear. There’s a difference between freedom and being free, he thought to himself, while trying to decide if it was worth the risk for him to cross over and see about finding someone willing to let him do some work.

Lost in that thought, he stood for what seemed like hours, watching them come, watching them go, until a noise he thought only existed in his head turned out to be the sound of leaves and acorns crunching loudly underfoot behind him. 

“We found you in the burying ground. We was wonderin’ where you coming from, or going to,” said Mack, the taller of the two men who’d followed Robert. Both of them were Black, much to Robert’s relief. They’d talked with him in hushed voices for a while, glancing furtively at the workers shuffling in and out of the mill, and told him there was no work to be found and that he should just move on if he didn’t want trouble. 

“We … I have a sick child,” Robert told them. 

Mack’s face lit up. 

“You have people? There’s more of you? Where y’all stay at?” he asked. 

“Nowhere,” Robert said. “Just passing through.”

“Passing through? To where?” Mack shot back. 

“Just passing through,” Robert said. 

With daylight fast disappearing over the horizon, Robert headed back down the main road toward the camp, too exhausted to fight the underbrush anymore. Mack walked beside Robert, who’d grown annoyed with Mack’s questions. 

“Where y’all come from?” Mack continued. 

Soldiers on horseback had begun freeing slaves in the U.S.-occupied territories of Mississippi shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, but Robert wasn’t part of that effort and had to wait until many months after Vicksburg fell to learn that he was free, at least as far as the government was concerned. 

“I come from the coast myself,” said Mack. “Ended up here during the war. Ain’t really had no reason to stay, but ain’t really had no reason to leave, neither.”

Keeping up a brisk stride, Robert thought back to the faces and places he’d left behind, in Mississippi — friends and family unwilling to gamble their temporary security for the kind of permanent peace he sought. Maybe they were right, his stomach told him. He hadn’t eaten for a full day but drawing nearer to the camp he could smell that a fire was burning, and someone was cooking up some kind of fish that must have been caught while he was gone. 

“I like it better here,” Mack said, the low ridges of the Appalachian Mountains rising off his left shoulder. “It’s not so hot up here.”

Robert turned off the road and ducked back into the woods, picking up the red cloth he’d dropped earlier. It was nearly dark now, but as he and Mack emerged from the trees into the vast field of broomsedge, their presence didn’t escape notice.

“Louella,” said a man standing watch near the edge of the camp. “Someone’s coming.”

“Is it Robert?” she asked quietly, stroking the forehead of the infant sleeping in her lap. 

“If it is, he got someone with him,” the man said, prompting Louella to rise and hand the child off to another woman tucked up in a nest of pine needles. 

“Don’t worry,” he told Louella. “He’s Black too.”

Brushing the grass with her hands as she walked, Louella met Robert and Mack a few yards outside the camp, so as not to rouse those who were still asleep. 

“Who’s this?” she asked, nodding apprehensively at Mack. 

“Where is she?” Robert asked in return. 

Louella took Robert by the hand and hustled him through the darkened camp, around the sleeping bodies, past the glowing embers of the fire they’d smelled. Leading him to the child she’d cradled moments earlier, Louella watched Robert pull a foggy glass bottle out of the back pocket of his pants. It read, “Dr. Ander’s Bone and Nerve Liniment” and was half-full of a strong-smelling brownish liquid. 

He removed the cap, poured some on his hands, rubbed them together and grasped the child by the arm, rubbing it into her dark brown skin, kneading and massaging her tiny muscles, all the way up to the shoulder. She gave a short yelp, but never roused from her slumber. 

“Thank you,” her mother said, looking up at him, only the whites of her dark brown eyes visible to him. “Thank you, Robert.”

“Thank Mack here,” Robert replied. “He knew someone who had some so I didn’t have to work for it or buy it.”

Louella again glanced at Mack, slightly less suspicious of him than the last time. 

“It’s late and you’re tired and probably hungry, too,” Louella said, her eyes shifting to meet Robert’s. “We should stay another night here. It’s been pretty quiet all day, I think we’ll be alright for one more night. Everyone could use a little more rest before we go on.”

Robert thought for a second but couldn’t get any words out before the sentry who’d spotted him and Mack coming back into camp trotted up to them with concerning urgency. 

“Louella, somebody coming,” he said softly. 

“Is he white?” Louella asked him. 

“Too dark, can’t tell. And he’s got a hat on,” he said. 

Robert gripped the bottle by the neck, stood up and followed the watchman back to the perimeter, with Mack trailing closely behind. Dropping to all fours, they crawled some distance from the camp, and then sat silently with their heads just slightly above the grass.

They still couldn’t see him clearly, but they could hear the shhhh-shhhh sound his canvas trousers made as he brushed against the tufts of grass. Shhhh-shhhh, closer with each step, shhhh-shhhh. Mack grew more agitated with each step, shifting his weight onto his knees.

As the noise grew louder, the intruder couldn’t have been more than a few yards away when Mack took a deep breath and puffed out his chest, whole body shivering, ready either for flight, or for fight. Shhhh-shhhh. 

Once the man had passed them by, Robert grabbed Mack by the elbow and yanked him up, roughly, all three men now standing. 

“Jim!” Mack shouted at the back of the man who’d been with him when they discovered Robert near the mill. “Jim what you doin’ out here this time of night, mean to scare us half to death?”

Jim, equally startled, turned quickly to face them and reflexively drew his fists up in front of his face. Recognizing Mack and eyeballing the other two men, Jim let his arms slowly slump to his waist. 

Robert put the bottle back in his pocket. 

“They know. They comin’. Leave this place,” Jim said. “Leave right now.”

 

KHL bird

 

Spring became late summer and nights were short so for several weeks they made less progress than usual, but most of the group had grown stronger thanks to the long day-sleeps and relative abundance of pokeweed and dandelions and scallions, not to mention all the berries and mushrooms. Soon there would be apples. 

They’d largely remained out of the mountains, instead skirting the piedmont nestled against their southern face, progressing generally northeast. Many of the older members of the group had ailments or infirmities that they’d nursed their entire lives — like a badly-healed break or bone-on-bone joints — and couldn’t bear to cross the Blue Ridge. 

That became unavoidable as they pushed through North Georgia into the far western corner of South Carolina, which little resembled the sandy beaches and booming urban ports down on the coast. Rugged and deserted with some peaks reaching over 3,000 feet, the landscape took its toll on Robert’s ever-growing band but at least allowed them to travel out in the open, during the day. 

From the shade of a large rock overhang they’d adopted for the past week, Louella saw on a trail far below Robert returning to the camp. A few steps back was the man he’d brought him four days prior, same black suit, same black shoes, same black hat, same black face. 

When Louella stood up, Mack saw her and knew it was time and began to gather the others, following her up a winding path that ended atop the overhang at a grassy bald. There, nearly a hundred of them circled around two crudely rigged wooden crosses that were held together with a few turns of hemp cord. From their bases rose two oblong mounds of freshly-piled dirt, one about the size of a man but the newest, a small child.

With Robert was an itinerant preacher who’d come from Cross Anchor but had been staying nearby. Louella led the group in song until Rev. Ezel took his place between the graves.

“Shall we pray? God in Heaven, we thank you for this day and for all of the things that are good,” he began, just as he did when he said it for Jim. “Again, we come to you in our time of need and pray that you give us understanding and peace, as we all will follow Jim and now dear Alice to your kingdom, the happy land where none shall know sorrow, in Jesus’ name we pray Amen.”

After Mack’s brother died — he just dropped, during a strenuous ascent, like a heap of laundry — Robert and Louella thought it best to linger for a few days out of respect. Ruth, mother of baby Alice, preferred not to dwell and wanted to move on. 

“What are you looking for?” Rev. Ezel asked Robert later, campfire flames flickering about the overhang. “You know you can’t walk forever. Be out of these hills by fall, but you know you can’t walk forever.”

Robert stared at the ground. He didn’t have an answer. 

“We are all on this journey,” the reverend continued. “We’re all on this journey to the Kingdom of God, but you’ve got to find your joy, your place, your happy land on this world while you wait to go on to the next.” 

 

KHL tree

 

About a week later, everyone packed up and left Jim and Alice, their graves known to none but them and the moon that cast a long midnight shadow of the crosses over dewy sedge. Moving east, day by day, and driven down from the mountains by an unusual stretch of late September chill, they finally descended into a knife-shaped valley a mile wide and 10 miles long, maybe more. 

Louella out in front, Robert in the back, their own column now stretched nearly a quarter-mile in length. Cresting a hill, Louella spotted in the distance a wide, well-maintained road teeming with activity. 

Carriages, wagons, and men on horseback passed in both directions, north to south. Some walked. A few had mules. All of them were carrying something, or pulling something, or pushing something. Meat. Molasses. Black men. White men. 

Robert soon caught up to Louella and watched with her for a time until he and Mack, under her vigilant watch, made their way down to the road. 

“I know what this is,” Mack said, as they drew near. “I been on this.”

“What?” said Robert. “What is this?”

“Say!” Mack shouted to an oncoming stagecoach, waving his hand at the Black driver. “What road is this?” 

Skidding his team to a slow trot, the driver could only shout as he passed. 

“This here is the Buncombe Turnpike and we headed for Asheville,” he said, leaving them in a cloud of dirt. 

Mack knew it, and told Robert. 

“You go that way, you get through Columbia and down to the Low Country. You go this way,” Mack said, pointing at the cloud of dirt, “and you get up in them mountains. Every year, in the summer, we used to ‘company the man of the house and his bride up here from Port Royal. Get away from that heat.”

It took some convincing to get Louella on board, but when Robert and Mack explained that going back up into the mountains might get them off the road for the winter she reluctantly went along with the plan, which was to stagger their insertion onto the northbound road in groups of five or 10 so as not to arouse any more suspicion than a group of 150 former slaves carrying nothing and going nowhere might normally arouse. 

Several days up the road, after crossing into North Carolina’s Henderson County, Louella stopped at an intersection to sit beneath a tall pink myrtle soaking up the waning light of fall. When the whole group caught up, Robert among the last of them, their eyes met and she called out to him by name. 

It was only getting colder and harder and it was all uphill, and everyone was tired. Something had to change or equilibrium would ensure they’d eventually all waste away or worse, grow so large as a group as to bring misfortune on the lot of them. Anyways, another little one was sick.

“Robert, you know it has to be you,” Louella said. 

He headed up the road in search of liniment — always that damned liniment — until right about nightfall, when he heard the telltale squealing of a rusty chain, swinging in the blustery winds blowing down from above. A whittled wood sign hanging on a pole had broken from one of its rusty mounts. Holding it in his hands, Robert could see that it said “Oakland Inn,” with an arrow pointing at a road that went up a ways but terminated at a large, rundown house drawing him in by the warm glow of its fire light. 

The sound of his boots on the plank porch leading to the front door shook Robert, no less than when he pounded his fist on front door, polite and firm. Hoping for the best, Robert swallowed hard when he heard the light footsteps approach and the bolt click and slide and he saw the door jerk open. Jammed out the crack was the bonnet-clad head of the smallest, oldest white woman Robert had ever seen. 

“I’m Widow Davis,” she scowled. “What are you looking for?”

 

KHL house

 

 

fr happyland pepper

Henderson County historian Ronnie Pepper speaks at a Saluda church in October, 2019. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

Maybe it all happened that way and maybe it didn’t, but the truth is that very little is known about Robert Montgomery before he and the rest of his band established what came to be known as The Kingdom of the Happy Land on Septa Merritt Davis’ farm right after the Civil War. What’s known after isn’t much more, right down to the true identities of its most captivating figures. 

“Most Blacks, the names that we have are not ours,” said Ronnie Pepper, a Henderson County native and historian. “When we came from Africa, our language was taken, our names was taken, our songs, our dance, they tried to push that down, so those names are not ours. We were made to forget all of that, because we were not people, but slaves.”

In fact, there’s but one lone source for the saga of the Happy Land, a 16-page pamphlet published by Stevens Press in 1957 for Sadie Smathers Patton, a local historian. She called it “a dim and tattered page” of Henderson County’s history. 

Although the publication does provide crucial details regarding The Kingdom of the Happy Land, the story has mostly been preserved by storytellers like Pepper. 

“What we can say about Robert Montgomery, that he was a man, and about the Kingdom, that it did exist,” he said. “It’s been documented.”

What’s known is that Col. John Davis, born in Virginia in 1782, had fought under Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, before purchasing nearly 900 acres in the Green River area of what was then Buncombe County. 

With his bride Septa (sometimes spelled Sarepta) Davis and his family ran an inn and stagecoach stop along the Buncombe Turnpike in a settlement he called Oakland, just outside of modern-day Tuxedo, in Henderson County. 

The parcel backed right up to the South Carolina line, which proved a notable feature. 

The famed Vance-Carson duel took place on the far southwestern flank of the property in 1827. Asheville native Robert Vance was Gov. Zebulon Vance’s uncle and a one-term congressman elected in 1822. He saw electoral defeat handed him by Marion-born Samuel Price Carson, a state senator, in 1824 and again in 1826. Owing to the heated nature of the campaigns, Vance challenged Carson to a duel. 

Dueling had been illegal in North Carolina since 1802, so they stepped across the property line, into South Carolina. Vance never fired, but Carson put a ball in Vance’s hip. Vance was taken to Davis’ inn, and died there a day later. Congressman Davey Crockett was a witness to this duel, as his wife Elizabeth Patton was from Swannanoa. They were there as friends of Carson, who continued serving in Congress until 1833 until moving to Texas (with Crockett) and signing the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico in 1836. 

 

fr happyland septa

Septa (sometimes spelled Serepta) Davis owned the land that would eventually become The Kingdom of the Happy Land. Stevens Press photo

 

Sometime around 1859, Col. Davis passed away, leaving the elderly Septa and their son Tom to manage the sprawling 200-acre plot that served as home to the inn. It’s not known if they had slaves before the Civil War, but if they did, by the time Robert Montgomery arrived they’d either run off or been freed, leaving the grounds in a terrible state of disrepair. 

We’ll probably never know what sort of deal Montgomery struck with the Widow Davis, but because of Patton’s book and Pepper’s stories, we do know that it resulted in a significant settlement of free Blacks on Davis’ farm by 1866 or 1867. Perhaps they worked for her. Perhaps they worked with her. In any case, the residents of the Kingdom built for themselves a new civilization that provided basic needs to its residents for nearly four decades.

“This community worked together and pooled their resources,” Pepper said. “They worked for surrounding families. They farmed. They mined. They used the skills that they brought from Africa, that they learned here in the states as slaves, and that benefited them and that benefited others.”

They also benefitted from the trade that took place along the turnpike, bartering with travelers for crops and transporting their own goods to and from market. They even produced their own brand of liniment — at the time, snake-oil patent medicines made from various herbs and grain alcohol or turpentine — called Happy Land Liniment. 

The form of self-governance they took on was unique, in its time and place. Although it was called a “Kingdom” and did indeed have a king, all economic activity flowed through King Robert in a very communal way. When residents of the Kingdom would hire themselves out to work for others in the area, they’d give King Robert their wages, and he’d spend them on necessaries to ensure the Kingdom’s agricultural operations could continue. 

Fortune smiled on the Kingdom as it slowly became established as a beacon for free Blacks in the region. Peak population estimates range from 50 to 200, but some suppose it could have been more than 400. In the spring of 1882, a deed conveyed ownership rights of more than 200 acres from J.H. Goodwin and Sarah Goodwin (Septa’s daughter) to Robert and Louella Montgomery. 

King Robert did not rule alone — conflicting accounts say Louella was Robert’s wife, or sister, or sister-in-law — but all accounts agree she became known as “Queen Louella.”

Dr. Dana Patterson, director for the Office of Intercultural Affairs at Western Carolina University, calls the idea of a Black Queen in North Carolina, at a time when even white women couldn’t vote, intriguing. 

“In African values, this idea of having women hold very high and very prominent places within the community is something that dates back to traditional African societies — matriarchal communities,” said Patterson. “Even a lot of African American families today are still led by grandmothers and aunties who are of a certain age. These women are the holders of the knowledge and the holders of the culture.”

Queen Louella seems to have filled that role nicely. She formed and led a choir called The Kingdom Singers and helped establish a church and a school in the Kingdom. 

“I would think that when any group of freed slaves would have come together in a community that was one of the first things they would have wanted to do,” said Patterson, who is also the newly-elected head of the Jackson County Branch of the NAACP. “They’re two institutions that would have been very important, as they are still very important in the Black community today.”

Around the turn of the century the Kingdom began to decline — not due to internal strife nor to external oppression, but for purely economic reasons. With the coming of the railroad nearby the Buncombe Turnpike, the entire business model of the Kingdom was upended. 

Eventually the land was sold, several times, and today is owned by an LLC that grows legal cannabis to produce its own line of CBD products. No signs of the Kingdom are visible from the road, and the owners have expressed a desire for privacy while also acknowledging the historic nature of the property on their website. 

Not a single record survives of what happened to Robert, or Louella, or anyone else in the Kingdom after it ceased to exist. Rumor has it some may have moved to Hendersonville, or East Flat Rock. Others may have joined the existing Black communities in Asheville, Franklin, Sylva or Waynesville. Others yet may still reside in the Kingdom of the Happy Land, in a purported cemetery. 

Many of the Kingdom’s enduring facades may have faded away into history like the grave markers in countless Appalachian family cemeteries, but the impact of this historical tale still reverberates across generational divides, and racial lines. 

“It’s a joyful story,” Pepper said. “Our stories are similar. We struggle. We have to overcome. Everything’s not perfect. We have more things in common than we realize.” 

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